Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Farewell Tour

A year in Bhutan, an opportunity few will have and an experience anyone would cherish. How does one finish the year well? For me it was more than a month of time to explore and say farewells to people and places. The school year is structured such that my duties essentially
evaporated toward the end of the year. In addition I stayed in Bhutan ‘til Dec 27 in order to take advantage of being in a place on the opposite side of the planet which I am unlikely to visit again in this life.

Highlights of the farewell tour are many, I’ll touch on a few. Tucked high in a valley above Wangdue is Baylangdra Monastery. Many miles of “farm” road, the official designation for rough, rural roads, lead to the Monastery. I caught some rides in that direction after doing my typical 1 hour steep descent on foot to the Phunasentchu river from my home in Gaselo. The last ride began in a seriously overloaded van, I had an older man on my lap, the taxi driver and his friend, a teacher who had attended Gaselo HSS as a student, declared that I would stay with them.  The next morning I walked, 1½ hrs to the monastery and another 1+ hr steep climb to the newly rebuilt hermitage which hangs onto a ledge in the cliffs like so many temples in Bhutan. Winter vacation for students and teachers applies to monks as well, so the only two folks present when I arrived were a caretaker and a woodworker who had done all the carving and painting for the newly built temple. I spent several hours there, sitting and gazing at the view, having tea, communicating as best I could. The valley below looks like a bit of Switzerland and nary a car disturbs the view. Walking down made for a second pass of the HUGE cypress tree which is said to have grown from the walking staff of the Guru Rimpoche. A second night spent with the taxi driver and it is off to Thiimphu for an appointment with the dentist.

On my way home from Thimphu I stop on top of Dochu La and walk the ridgetop trail to Luchung Tse, a monastery perched upon a high spot on the ridge. Only a few monks present two of whom are partaking in a hot stone bath. Certainly a bonus for taking on the monastic vows. I beg for a place to sleep and am rewarded by a hot meals and a cozy bed. The next morning I rise just before the sun so that I can behold dawn from the stone patio which surrounds the temple and provides a truly stunning 360 ° of the Himalaya on all horizons. After an inspiring visit to the temple with the clouds playing a part in sunrise then disappearing to give an un obstructed vista and some breakfast I set off for Hingle La, the pass over which I had walked earlier in the year. After reaching Nahi I could say that I had covered the
whole distance from Gaselo to Dochu La and down to Hontsho on foot, very nice.

Another sojourn of note occurred following our final debrief in Thimphu. Three of us set out for the Haa valley on a beautiful blue sky winter afternoon. The drive into the valley is breathtakingly spectacular. The village of Haa is unremarkable in many ways but it is pretty high in the mountains and pretty chilly compared to other places. We sought out a bukhari (wood stove) to sit around as the sun was setting and the chill in the air became more than just noticeable. A specialty of the area turned out to be buckwheat dumplings filled
with saag and many other goodies, some of the best vege momos of the whole year. One day was spent on a short but exciting hike to a small hermitage in a cliff above town and then around and
through the cliffs to a monastery on the other side of the ridge in the morning and a bit of exploring in the valley that afternoon.

I had hoped all along that blue skies would bless my last few days in Bhutan as I wanted very much to see the big mountains. Once again, as had happened so many times, Bhutan provided. The skies were perfectly clear as we headed up Chele La, the highest mountain pass in Bhutan which is crossed by a paved road. The road was built in large part to serve tourists a spectacular view from the 13,120ft
(3998m) summit similar to Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. We had planned to meet a friend on top coming from the Paro side and the timing was perfect. Our driver, like most Bhutanese, was quite conservative and very nervous about driving down the Paro side which was protected from the sun and had many patches of snow covered road. After conferring with the other driver he was willing to give it a try, I suspect we broadened his horizons a bit that day.

We headed up through the forest of prayer flag poles and maze of prayer flags strung everywhere. After several bumps on the ridge, each progressively higher, we reached the summit where there was a small stone hut. Apparently this site is used for the sky burial of children. An amazing spot for so many reasons. The distinct
white pyramid of Johulmahari, Bhutan’s highest peak, was just off to our right. Off to our left on a more distant horizon was the unmistakeable Kachungjunga massive, third highest peak in the world. Behind us ridge after ridge of lower mountains filled the view as Bhutan ran into India. We continued along the ridge as it descended above a cliff sided valley. Some fortunate route finding found us walking a trail around the cliffs to the Kila Nunnery nestled into the base of the cliff. Apparently the oldest nunnery in Bhutan this is an auspicious spot indeed. A visit to the temple, tea with a few of the young nuns, and time spent to absorb all we could from the place completed our afternoon as we headed down the trail to find the road.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Tea Parties

A year often seems like a long time. If one is waiting for a visitor then it could be too long. If I look back at my years they are recognizable pieces of time but not so large. For many spending a year in Bhutan would be unimaginable, but for me it was tied to teaching for one full school year and so it made sense. Being involved in school creates many opportunities while at the same time limits them due to the constraints of the school schedule. Working with a group of students and faculty as well as living in the community has opened the door to knowing many people much better than a traveler ever could. It has also provided many insights into Bhutanese culture, society, government, and religion. The parts of the country I have visited have been chosen carefully as my time to travel has been limited. I have gotten to know the area around my village of Gaselo on many afternoon walks. The Punakha Valley and its surrounds have provided endless day long excursions which have filled my weekends many of which are a short 1½ days. Even last February with nearly a year ahead of me I tried to make the most of opportunities as I knew my stay in Bhutan was finite.

Nothing spells out the end of a school year like final exams. My “question papers” have been prepared for several weeks and now is the time for students to take exams and for me to start
marking them and working on year grades. Just over a month remains before I depart Bhutan, likely for the last time. It is BCF (Bhutan Canada Foundation) policy to bring teachers to Bhutan for one year. We are considered to be volunteers because we are paid by the Bhutanese government as civil servants. This monthly salary, which amounts to a bit over $300 at current exchange rates, is plenty to meet one’s needs in Bhutan but certainly does not go far in terms of paying bills at home or buying plane tickets. It is also BCF policy to encourage teachers to stay for another year after they have figured out how things work and have become comfortable in their situation which varies greatly for each individual. As I look toward my departure I can so clearly see so many reasons for returning for a second year, primarily to be able to begin a school year with some understanding of how things work and with a few personal relationships in place. In my case, however, the rules under which BCF operates clearly state that a teacher cannot turn 60 while in Bhutan, this age limit has given me the opportunity to be here for this year but no more. Most of the BCF teachers this year are not returning, it is a huge commitment and not everyone can step away from their lives at home for unlimited amounts of time.

Early in the year one of my colleagues, Pema, was traveling to Thimphu regularly to be with his wife when their second child was born. After the arrival of their baby I congratulated Pema on the birth of his second son. He shrugged it off and told me that births are not such a big event in Bhutan but deaths, on the other hand, are celebrated elaborately and the anniversary commemorated with a family gathering for three years. The lesson here is that endings are dear for the Bhutanese. I began to realize this as I witnessed several dinners to celebrate the departure
of various faculty during the year. As the end of this school year draws near there have been many events to celebrate the conclusion of this term. Many of these go under the headings of “tea party” or picnic. Tea and biscuits, that is crackers and cookies, are served along with an hour or two of songs and dances performed by the students. If it is a picnic it lasts longer, sometimes all day, and lunch is served. Everything is organized by the students. Many class groups have these events, they have been together in one class room all year. The boarding school students have a bunk in the
hostel (dorm) and a spot at a table for two in their class rooms and that is their only personal space for the year. The class groups know each other well and become quite close by the end of the year, hence a celebration is called for. All of these farewells have been going on for more than a month and now my classes are taking exams, the end of this school year is nigh.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Broken Tooth

All of us, BCF teachers that is, here in Bhutan this year agree that the ever changing schedule is simply part of the flow of life. Given a choice I suspect most Bhutanese would use schedules as rough guides, certainly not something to be followed directly. The westernization that has accompanied much modernization here brings with it a society of schedules, school schedules, work schedules, business hours, etc. During the year I have come to anticipate changes and surprises in the school schedule by planning very loosely so that there can easily be extra days either of class or no class. The grand finale for scheduling surprises came one recent Thursday when at midday it became apparent that it was going to be my last day in the class room. How can a teacher be surprised about the last day of classes for the year? We were given a schedule for the school year which had been followed as a set of guidelines, the major holidays, national occasions shown on every calendar in the country, were reliable and provided a framework for the school schedule. The mid-year break had moved around quite a bit before it was nailed down, many school events were shifted to accommodate this or that, so I was prepared for surprises. Originally our final exam period was to begin November 16, it was then preponed, yes isn’t that such a practical term, to Wednesday, November 13. I have mentioned Bhutan’s small size and homogenous culture several times, one result is that many things are not discussed because everyone knows already, often everyone but me. Everyone knows, for example, that the day before the final exam period begins is spent arranging the school for exams. Every student is assigned a seat for the exam period. The rooms are set up with two students at each table who are not the same grade level so will never be taking similar exams. This takes a good bit of planning and arranging of tables and chairs. The rooms are then cleaned of all educational materials and locked. Although I had experienced this process at mid term I had forgotten about it. So that took care of Tuesday. Monday was a national holiday, no surprise there. This is one of the holidays where the students do not have classes but we did have the final awards program and lunch that day so everyone was at school for part of the day. Sunday is never a class day. Saturday had been scheduled for the school picnic. Remember, Saturday is a school day in Bhutan. This is one of the events that happens every year, it appears on the school calendar but perhaps only as a reminder to reschedule it where it might fit as the time draws near. This had been discussed during a faculty meeting and I was, for once, aware of the plans. Then on Thursday an emissary from MOE (Ministry of Education) arrived at school with a set of assessment exams to be administered to all Class X  (grade 10) students on Friday. Several teachers were needed to invigilate and I was asked. I teach no Class X but it was important for me to do as I was asked. So, around noon on Thursday I discovered I had just had my last classes as a class room teacher a full eight days ahead of what I had originally had in mind based on my interpretation of the school calendar. For my Class VII and XI students the last day of class was November 8, school is “in session” until December 15. Prior to exams the whole school has many days dedicated to “revision,” or review. All in all a full two months of the school year is dedicated to the annual exam period. At mid term a bit more than one month was dedicated to exams. In the end more than 30% of the school year is given to exams, in my mind this is a disservice to the students who are investing a large part of their lives in the pursuit of an education. Much more time could be spent learning and much less time dedicated to exams, but my year here is meant to broaden the perspectives of my students, not to change the system.

One result of all the exam time is a lot of time for teachers. The National Board Exams taken by all Class X and XII students are administered by a visiting team of invigilators drawn from other schools. Some of our teachers travelled to other schools to administer exams. The teachers are paid extra for this and many enjoy the chance to travel a bit and to see and do some different things. For those of us who stay at school the schedule is pretty loose. Last week I ended up with a broken tooth and I found that I must travel to Thimphu for dental care. A bit of medical leave and presto I had a four day weekend and missed no duties at school. I visited friends in Thimphu, did the city thing, had the broken portion of my tooth removed, after looking at an x-ray the doctor told me I needed a root canal. He prescribed a course of antibiotics and made an appointment for the following Friday. The doctor is Indian, spoke English well, explained the situation to me, I will see how it all goes. It will mean a lot of trips over Dochu La, the high pass between here and Thimphu. This time of years bodes clear skies and spectacular views accompanied by 2-3hrs of bumpy, crowded time in cars.

Friday night was spent in Punakha with a fellow BCF teacher. The following midmorning we left for Sewala Buddhist Institute, something around 9 miles and many thousand feet above Punakha. The trail led up onto a ridge which we followed most of the way. The hiking was spectacular, the
views amazing in all directions and the terrain amenable to wonderful walking, the cool fall air was a bonus as well. Part way up we came upon a small ridge top temple, Jili Lakhan, or “cat temple.” And old monk showed us around, his paintings adorned the walls, worn spots on the floor spoke of countless prostrations. It was an enchanting place indeed and we spent a wonderful hour. As the hours passed we began to glimpse our goal which always looked to be quite far away. But steady walking covers distance and we arrived at Sewala around 4:00 in the afternoon. We sat on a bench with high
peaks on two sides and an overview of our entire hike, monks met us with glasses of chilled fruit juice, an auspicious arrival for us to say the least. These places, perched on high ridges all over Bhutan, can be surprisingly large. Most now have access via very rough, rudimentary roads. Here at Sewala there are four temples, the oldest established almost 300 years ago. The monks number 108 which includes 30 younger monks in the Lobdra or lower school and 50 in the upper classes. We were visiting on a weekend and many monks were playing kuru, watching TV (only on weekends), and looking forward to Sunday volleyball.

The hike had been long and the destination was to be cherished, perhaps this place called for more than a brief stop. I suggested that sunrise might be a worthwhile experience. That idea carried and we inquired, a rather
plush guest house was available, several monks showed us around, kept us company, cooked for us, and prepared two very cushy beds heaped with blankets and quilts. The sun set in a clear sky, as the alpenglow on the peaks shone against the darkening deep blue sky a full moon lit the night sky. My night’s sleep was everything one might expect at a serene Buddhist learning center tucked high in the Himalayan foothills. We rose before dawn to walk to the Temple at the top of the hill to see the sun clear the ridge of mountains in front of us. The dawn light was enchanting and
included views into the Po Chu and Mo Chu valleys as they merged to become the Punatshang Chu. Low clouds were scattered along the bottoms of the valleys accentuating the shape and flow of the terrain. Just enough cloud on the eastern horizon to give a vivid layer of sunrise color highlighting the mountainous skyline.

After enjoying the sunrise we returned to breakfast and a bit more conversation. Shortly after eating we visited the temple to make a donation to honor our good fortune and headed
down the trail. We made a stop at one point to clean up a beautiful overlook, add some prayer flags, and discover a garden of beautiful pink orchids on the trunk of the tree we tied flags to. The descent was as beautiful as the climb, lunch at Jili Lakhan, and a return to Punakha around 1:00pm. I headed to Bajo to do my usual Sunday shopping, ran into a fellow teacher from Gaselo, and ended up at a kuru match next to the river we had looked down upon over breakfast. The evening sky was a myriad of cotton balls turning dark on one side and sunset reds on the other. As usual, some
waiting around in Bajo while rides sorted themselves out, but finally as a snug four in the backseat we wound our way toward Gaselo drowsing along the way. My groceries had ended up in another car, but that driver is my neighbor and delivered them and said he had dinner waiting for him and that I should join him. It is saag (leafy greens like spinach) season and I enjoyed the 4th saag curry in three days. All were fresh, tasty, and a little different. Eating fresh and seasonally is something that is so easy to lose touch with in the mega supermarkets of the west.

So, the extended exam period and the proclivity for things to work out in ways that are both unforeseen and unplanned, have enabled me to have a wonderful excursion prompted by a broken tooth.